UDR widows seek compensation for loss of husbands

 

The families of Ulster Defence Regiment soldiers killed in the Troubles have accused the British government of neglect. Suzanne Breen, Senior Northern Correspondent, reports.

It happened nearly 30 years ago but Ms Florence Watt vividly remembers running from her home in Newtownhamilton, south Armagh, when she heard the shots. Her husband Sydney, a part-time UDR solider, lay bleeding on the ground.

She said she would go to his brother's house, a quarter of a mile away, to get help. But Sydney mumbled there was no point, he was dying.

So she put a cushion under his head, covered him with blankets and just stayed with him. He died minutes later, the victim of an IRA gunman.

Ms Watt was only 28-years-old. She was left to bring up their four children, who were all under 10. She received £8,000 compensation from the British Ministry of Defence.

The children were given nothing. So she took £500 for each of them out of her money and invested it.

"That left me with £6,000 and we had only just built the house. There were debts to pay. It made me angry Sydney's life was valued at only £8,000 and nobody cared how we survived. It was very hard rearing the children.

"My family hadn't much money when I was growing up and I had been determined to do better for my children. But it wasn't to be. We had to make do with less.

"There was never a lot of money for clothes or special occasions like Christmas."

The UDR Benevolent Fund paid for a holiday for the family to Blackpool every year. "That wee trip meant the world to us," she said. "It was great getting out of Northern Ireland for a few days."

The widows of full-time UDR soldiers received a lump sum (on top of their compensation) because their husbands had paid into pension schemes.

However, there was no similar entitlement for the widows of part-timers. Instead, they received a second World War pension. Ms Watt said hers was around £60 a week "which didn't go far when it came to bringing up four children".

More than 300 UDR members were killed in the Troubles. The regiment was 97 per cent Protestant and always controversial. Nationalist politicians regularly called for it to be disbanded.

Like the widows of part-time UDR soldiers, those of part-time police officers also received less favourable treatment than the widows of their full-time colleagues.

Those whose partners were killed before 1982, when compensation levels were exceedingly low, were particularly badly off.

However, last year the British government set up the Police Fund and so far £4.2 million has been paid to the widows of policemen killed before 1982.

The widow of every officer killed before then received £2,000 for every year she was widowed.

Ms Watt believes the British government's benevolence was tactical. "The money was given at a time when radical police changes were being introduced. It was political for the government to look after RUC widows. It acted as a sweetener to existing police officers. But there has been no tactical advantage for them to be so generous to us. The UDR was already wound-up."

In 1992, the regiment was amalgamated with the Royal Irish Rangers to become the Royal Irish Regiment. "In death our husbands have been treated like second-class citizens," she said.

"The UDR often went on joint patrols with the RUC in order to protect the police. Yet there are cases of a UDR man and a policeman being killed side-by-side and the UDR man's widow receiving a pittance, whilst the police widow was given far more compensation and a decent pension. We don't resent what the widows of policemen have received, we just want fair treatment."

The UDR widows are asking the British government for the same amount of compensation as those the police officers received - £2,000 for every year since their husband's death.

Mrs Reatha Hassan, who worked for the UDR Welfare Department, said they deserve it. "This is a justice issue. These men gave their lives for their country. Their sacrifice has not been recognised. Their widows have been left with virtually nothing. They have had to almost beg for money when it should be their statutory right."

The widows' campaign is supported by Ulster Unionist MP, Mr Jeffrey Donaldson. His family has strong ties with the UDR.

Mr Donaldson was a part-time soldier in the 1980s, while a student at Queen's University, Belfast, and his father was in the UDR for 25 years. "The widows of UDR men have struggled to bring up young families and put their children through the education system with very little help from the state. Amends must be made," he said.

"At a time when the government has spent over £150 million on the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday, the least they can do is set aside funds to provide for the families whose loved ones served this country with great courage during the most difficult years of the Troubles."